11 August 2011

What is Wisconsin On?

This has been a busy news cycle, I really want to respond to all the craziness going on but I'll keep myself focused on what makes me most livid: the recall elections in Wisconsin. Democrats gained only two of the necessary three senate seats, which means the republicans maintain their majority in all branches of Wisconsin state government. This is not a victory for the left as some might argue due to the jolly-good-challenge we gave to republicans in their home districts. This is not a victory for the right either. They did effectively nothing. This is a defeat for the left.

The right merely spent a lot of money, they ran a lot of boring ads and pulled some dumb tricks. The Alberta Darling ad in that link is even about the issues! I would be singing a different tune if we lost to this ad, but we lost on the issues. The left couldn't build a movement against incoherent economics with the most energized base seen in decades. Once again the left grasps defeat from the jaws of victory.

There are two common arguments for why that I often hear from the left. The first, taken by Platypus among other groups, says that the Left has fallen into ideological incoherence and therefore lacks the organizational clarity to get anything done. Fortunately for Wisconsin there's no need to clarify the conditions of possibility for grasping the totality, or square the circle of decentralized planning. The arguments against Tea Party economics are sitting in Paul Krugman's NYTimes editorials or even the Standard and Poor's US bond downgrade. S&P says that, "We have changed our assumption on [the American budget base-line scenario] because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues." I'm not saying that S&P or the Keynesians have any idea how to overcome this historical crisis in capitalism, but they at least have arguments convincing enough in the short term to counter that Alberta Darling schlock!

The second major candidate for the left's failure is closer to what Walker brings up in his most recent post. He states that, "The raw material of politics has been reduced to the individual, the aggregate, and the market – for the left, as the right. This is a terrain upon which the right can thrive, while the left is limited to admonishing people to buy fair trade and fighting rearguard actions in defense of now parochial interests," which is to say that contemporary subjectivity leaves traditional left consciousness inadequate. As I've argued elsewhere however, the protests in Wisconsin offered renewed hopes and novel ways of experiencing the collective and politics as such. One could argue this momentary glimmer of light was not sufficient to shift consciousness, but if the left can't capitalize on glimmers of light then we'll never escape from the depths of this historical cave.

As I see it the failure of the left in Wisconsin is much simpler: a failure to be bold, innovative, or even serious about organizational forms. The recall efforts were led by the Democratic party and the moneyed unions like SEIU, AFSCME and to some extent the national AFL-CIO. They did a crappy job. They flew in operatives to craft social media strategy, develop talking points, recruit volunteers without developing leadership, and occasionally call some actions without doing the necessary turn-out or organizing to make them successful (to all my comrades who toiled so hard on walkerville I'm not belittling your work, you're not the ones to blame).

There are any number of organizational strategies that could have been tried. There could have been networks of autonomous community councils that made decisions and took ownership over each community's recall effort. Unions could have done legal shop-floor actions like work-to-rule to put pressure on businesses funding republican candidates. Union internationals could have flooded Wisconsin with organizers to launch ambitious and strategic new organizing campaigns to build and sustain the momentum. These campaigns could have integrated the community in rallies, street theater or boycott work to give energized people a way to plug in and build leadership beyond just knocking on doors and making phone calls (probably the most boring movement work I know of). My favorite idea that I heard was to fund campaign offices/community centers around Wisconsin which would have acted as symbolic and practical hubs for locally based organizing and then persisted after the recall elections as politicized community spaces. This would have institutionalized and operationalized the feelings of solidarity and collective involvement the protests symbolically opened and lay the groundwork for continued momentum.

All of these have something in common: they're based on grass-roots/rank-and-file, democratic (especially in the Ranciereian sense), and decentralized forms that give individuals a sense of ownership and agency and embrace creativity. Instead we saw at best the facile deployment of the militaristic OFA canvassing model or the organizing from afar so popular with SEIU. And the reason why is simple, to reduce the volatility of mass movements and evade the sticky-ness of trying to move consciousness. As the self-proclaimed "grown-ups" of the movement they can't afford to empower the ungovernable masses. They wanted to only have enough momentum for them to control and didn't want to have bad PR moments like a worker going off book and calling Scott Walker a fascist. God forbid some nobody nurse ruins their expertly laid media strategy.

This brings me to what I'd like to claim was the real impasse in Wisconsin: the hegemony of ossified and timid organizations over any large scale left organizing. This is a material impasse as much as an ideological one, and it calls for material solutions. For young radicals and revolutionaries like myself it seems the only options to get work done are to join a big ossified organization and try to do some good work despite the context. After this defeat in Wisconsin, one might as well work for a bank and try to foreclose on as few people as possible. The only other option, to live life precariously and get involved as much as you can with dynamic work, falls apart as soon as one realizes these organizations are so strapped for resources they can barely keep alive, let alone integrate and develop new leaders.

I do not mean to deny the enormous importance of a crisis in left ideology or difficulties regarding contemporary subjectivity. But I feel like these aren't the lessons we need to take from Wisconsin. We need to find ways to initiate, support and grow creative and powerful grass-roots/rank-and-file organizational forms. We need to solve the material problems of feeding, housing, taking mental care of, connecting and developing young revolutionaries. They're waiting for it, and without it we're left with this:


  1. I take your point in The Hypocrite Reader piece that the protesters figured themselves in universal terms, but the first question for me is whether this took hold beyond the immediate circle of the protesters, whether other people in Wisconsin didn't just take "We Are Wisconsin" as an empty slogan. Certainly private-sector union members could easily understand the connections to their position, but union members, public or private, are a distinct minority. How were non-union members supposed to identify with the movement? Did the protesters enunciate a universal vision that went beyond the right to organize (itself irrelevant to most people given existing labor conditions)?

    I'm not sure that arguments made from a standpoint taking the aggregate as object (including those of Krugman and S&P) make that much sense to a popular audience whose immediacy comes from within the aggregate. Even if they make sense, they may not generate the same enthusiasm as those based in Tea Party moralism. I didn't follow the recall elections in Wisconsin at all. What was the messaging strategy formulated by the unions?

  2. I'm not saying it's easy for the left in Wisconsin, what I mean is that difficulties arising from non-conducive popular subjectivity or incoherence of the left were overshadowed by a failure to even try and overcome these hurdles. I don't have any solid evidence to point to since I'm largely drawing from my two or three visits to Madison since the occupation, but I think the best evidence is what they didn't do i.e. anything creative.

    The issue of what the Democratic messaging was brings up an important point. As I see it a mistake was made along the dichotomy of advertizing and organizing. The recall campaigns were designed as advertizing campaigns. They tried to get the attention of anyone who agreed with them, and feebly hoped to court the few "swing voter" by the power of suggestion. They left unchallenged the forms of consciousness you so rightly point out and crossed our fingers that we could get more folks from our side out to the polls than they could on their side.

    But individual consciousness is fluid and subject to change in the context of serious relationships. This is what organizing is. Building relationships and ways of life that change subjectivity. While yes it's hard in a world where the traditional forms of left thought no longer grab people that's not to say we can't organize people, help them to inhabit new ways of thinking, and build a movement. If the traditional forms of thought don't seem to work we have to be open to new ideas and try new things and be serious about building relationships.

    My contention however is that the major players did not try this in the Wisconsin Recall elections. To some extent then concerns about the nuances of contemporary subjectivity are moot. All that mattered is that we didn't have a majority agreeing with us. No effort was made to change it, so they lost.

  3. So that raises a further question - after decades of doing the same thing over and over again and failing every time, why are the big unions still doing exactly the same thing? I was left unsatisfied with your explanation: "As the self-proclaimed 'grown-ups' of the movement they can't afford to empower the ungovernable masses." Do you mean that union leaders are trying to defend their power from the threat of democracy, or that their consciousness is so governed by PR-style best practices that they really do think that empowering the grassroots would threaten the campaign?

  4. There are probably several ways of approaching this problem. I don't think it can be put down to one of policy, however.

    Structurally, the tendency in the unions is towards working with management, at least as far as the leadership goes. It isn't easy to maintain a really hostile relationship for decades. Then add in the fact that the union leadership itself becomes a kind of management of the workers (with all the perks that implies) and develops its own institutional inertia. The union develops its own autonomy from the workers, especially as the workers' own militancy wanes.

    There is also the way in which the union acts as, and the workers expect it to act as, a legal representative. The union doesn't just act as a vehicle for workers' militancy, it mediates between labor and management, and to have credibility in this lawyer-ly role, it has to accept the legitimacy of both sides.

    Unions also have tended to develop along trade lines, even the industrial unions. The early CIO and the IWW are exceptions to this, but as the CIO grew, stabilized and then merged with the AFL, it lent to this same corporatist structure.

    Finally, the unions have traditionally been very conservative politically (excepting anarcho-syndicalist unions like the IWW and CGT in Spain). Gompers already in the late 1800's helped write and sponsor anti-Chinese legislation. The AFL was governed in its very laws in a completely racist and sexist manner. The CIO was less overtly so, but on the other hand the CIO worked with the KKK in the immediate post-WWII period to wipe out CP unions in the South. And most of them worked hand-in-glove in the 1970's and 80's to manage the layoffs with a minimum of disturbance.

    It's no accident that strikes in the 1960's and early 70's were as frequently against the unions as much as they were against the companies.

    This is all just off the top of my head. So why did the unions do a crappy job? Because they accept the constraints of business as usual unless the workers force them to do otherwise; because they don't want to create disorder any more than the companies do; because they accept the fundamental commonality of interests between labor and management.

  5. I wasn't thinking very hard about what keeps folks in their stale and business union ways, but I agree that it's very important. I was thinking more about the way our reliance on these ossified institutions constrains us. My impulse for why we're so reliant on them is basically about money and sustainability of ones life, hence my call for feeding and housing revolutionaries.

    That being said I think the second explanation you give walker is really interesting and what I hope I would have come up with if I were thinking about it. On one level I think the mediatized (as in, living in "the media") consciousness of these folks leaves them blind to the very possibility of organizing or changing popular consciousness. That would be what they are at their least offensive, however I think there is a real current under the surface of this blindness that is about fear of the democracy. A great example of this would be the Verizon strike right now. For people who spend their time in conference rooms throwing around "organizing" jargon, this is a disaster. It means that the plan will not be executed, that fox news will call us thugs, and that someone might get scared. For them it's all about controlling your public image (who cares what you actually are, its your image that counts). This out pouring of rank-and-file anger doesn't look good and it certainly isn't controllable. For people who see rank-and-file militancy and ungovernability as necessary to a vital movement, this is gold.

  6. Also in quick response to your Christopher, I think bringing up early 20th century american labor history is crucial here. We've forgotten first that picket lines were not successful because they looked good in the newspaper, but because anyone who tried to cross them was physically beaten back. Though I don't mean to imply unions were violent, rather that the whole situation was unruly, ugly and violent. Strikes were broken by pinkertons or the national guard and many died.

  7. I think this strike is really interesting because the Verizon workers do seem to be engaging in at least some level of activity that makes scabbing, strike-breaking, etc. more difficult and risky. Of course the union does not want to see this and of course there is nothing but hostility to the workers. They get treated in the same fashion as the rioters in England, and for rather similar reasons, actually.

    The fact has not changed since the origins of capital that any time workers take effective action against (a) capital in a period where (particular) capital(s) do not have a lot of room to give, or where there seems to be no significant force to make concessions preferable to confrontation, their rights (to organize, to gather in public, to free speech) are dissolved and the only right recognized is the right of property.